Keren Muñoz waited seven years to get a driver’s license in Minnesota, admitting that like other undocumented immigrants, she’s been driving “a la buena de Dios,” or “at God’s will,” in the meantime.
The 27-year-old from Chihuahua, Mexico, was one of 24 people who took a written driver’s test on Sunday, October 1, in Eagan as part of a “soft launch” for Driver’s Licenses For All, according to Comunidades Organizando el Poder y Acción Latina (COPAL), a Latino advocacy group.
Muñoz was one of two people in that group who passed their written exam Sunday.
“I feel very happy,” Muñoz told Sahan Journal on Monday, the first business day Driver’s Licenses for All was in effect. “I am excited to know the magnitude of this; we did it the first day the law was approved.”
The Legislature passed Driver’s Licenses for All this past February, ending a 20-year requirement that applicants must show proof of legal residency before they can apply for a driver’s license. That opened the door to an estimated 81,000 undocumented Minnesotans.
Dozens of people arrived at the Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS) office at the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis Monday morning. Others visited DVS locations across the state, looking to follow in Muñoz’s footsteps.
Emilia Gonzalez Avalos, executive director of Unidos MN, an organization that has led advocacy efforts pushing Driver’s Licenses For All, said the rollout has been going smoothly.
“We see the excitement on the ground,” she said. “People are passing their tests. And also, workers are building capacity, because one thing is to get trained and then the other thing is to be in the actual window, troubleshooting and solving things on the go.”
Gonzalez Avalos added that she has not heard of any protests or intimidation at DVS offices.
Some driver’s license applicants were able to take their tests on Sunday, the first official day the law was implemented, despite the fact that DVS facilities are typically closed on Sundays. She said Unidos MN worked in partnership with DVS as it opened a few of its facilities on Sunday, including in Plymouth, St. Cloud, and Minneapolis.
“I had never heard of it,” Gonzalez Avalos said of the Sunday appointments. “I just thought it was really generous. If the date was October 1, they opened on October 1. That’s appreciated.”
Officials with the state said it’s impossible to know how many of the written knowledge tests scheduled for Monday were for Driver’s Licenses for All applicants versus others, since that information isn’t collected.
Knowledge test proves difficult
Applicants at the Midtown DVS office arrived Monday carrying folders with documents and Driver’s Licenses For All brochures or printouts explaining the application process. Many brought a family member or friend to interpret for them.
When approached for comment, some said, “Solo vengo por información,” Spanish for, “I only came for information.”
One woman, identified by her first name, Maria, arrived at the office with her daughter. She told Sahan Journal she had just failed her knowledge test earlier Monday in Eagan.
Maria said she was undocumented until recently, and had scheduled the appointment for her test while she was still undocumented.
She blamed her failure on a lack of studying.
“You have to study well,” Maria said in Spanish. “I just studied overnight.”
David Perdomo, a COPAL organizer, saw similar scenes in Rochester where he spent Monday morning outside the DVS office asking people if they needed help. Perdomo said he saw about a dozen people come and go over two hours. None passed the written test.
Applicants over age 19 who pass the test are given a temporary permit that allows them to legally drive for three months before they must take a road test to receive their driver’s license.
“There is some confusion in the community about the exam questions,” Perdomo said in Spanish.
Perdomo said some people told him that some questions on the test were worded differently than they were in the study materials. Muñoz said some people didn’t study from the official manual, or were confused when the wording of some questions was not exactly the same as the wording in study materials made available by the state.
A few people walked out of the Midtown DVS office Monday with a temporary permit after passing the knowledge test, but declined to speak to a reporter.
Caesar Sosa already has a driver’s license, but stopped by the Midtown DVS office Monday to renew it. The written knowledge test should be simplified for the new group of applicants, because many of them have already been driving and following the law, he said, adding that even American drivers struggle with the knowledge test.
Gonzalez Avalos said Unidos staff are encouraging people to only schedule an appointment if they feel confident that they’ve studied enough for the knowledge test. The driver’s manual provided by the state is available for applicants to study in English, Spanish, and Somali.
“Folks were really quick to make an appointment, and then were finding out that the test is not easy,” Gonzalez Avalos said. “It’s not that simple. They have to do more than reading. They have to practice. They have to figure out hard questions.”
The test can also be completed orally in Eagan, downtown St. Paul, and Anoka. Applicants requesting an oral test should schedule the exam via email.
Test-takers can bring an interpreter to their appointment if needed, according to DVS. In addition, 26 exam stations have testing computers that can read the test aloud in English, Karen, Russian, Hmong, Somali, Spanish, Vietnamese. It can also deliver the test in American Sign Language.
Gonzalez Avalos also advises that people don’t show up to DVS without scheduling an appointment, as they are not accepting walk-ins. Applicants should also ensure that they have the required, up-to-date documents required to take the test, she added.
DVS told Sahan Journal in an email that it has had several training sessions for staff on the documentation requirements. The department has also updated requirements for translated foreign-language documents that are presented by applicants, and is now accepting translations from qualified nonprofessional translators as long as they are not translated by a blood relative. The office previously required that documents be translated by a certified translator.
“While we are grateful that this is a step in the right direction, we hope that one day they also allow relatives to do this,” Gonzalez Avalos said.
DVS noted in an email to Sahan Journal that applicants who are able to obtain a license under Driver’s Licenses For All do not receive a different type of license or appointment from documented residents.
One less thing to worry about
Keren Muñoz, the 27-year-old from Chihuahua, Mexico, credited COPAL as the reason she passed the knowledge test Sunday. The organization helped keep her informed about the process and how to apply, she said.
But, Muñoz added, it also takes some smarts. Her husband also took the test the same day as her and failed it.
“I studied whatever free time I had—a half hour in the morning and then another in the afternoon,” Muñoz said.
Muñoz said she faced skepticism in the Latino community when she began studying for her driver’s license test. Some people told her the new law was a scam and nothing would be given to undocumented Minnesotans, and others disagreed on the correct material to study.
Some people were also confused about the timing of the law, and thought they had to wait until it went into effect to make an appointment. The state opened applications for Driver’s Licenses for All in early September, allowing applicants to make appointments online for their knowledge test.
As long as you have the correct documentation, Muñoz said, filling out the paperwork is easy; the hard part is the test. But for now, she told Sahan Journal, she’s happy, and has one less thing to worry about while driving around the metro with her family, running errands, or traveling out of state.